In response to Karabo Mokoena’s shocking murder, the online community has taken to social media to say #MenAreTrash. People are rightly calling out men’s inertia towards gender-based violence.
One afternoon in school, I noticed a group of older boys whisper conspiratorially behind me. I started walking away discreetly. One of them followed. Dilemma: was I to draw more attention to myself by breaking into a run, or bite the bullet and face whatever humiliation was coming?
Before I decided, one of them groped me indecently with the school watching. They laughed as he walked back to his friends, an exaggerated “swish” in his movements. I picked up what everyone around me was saying through the blood rushing to my ears:
“But he isn’t gay…is he?”
“I’m sure he is. Why else would that guy have done that to him…?”
A girl turned to look at me and asked, “But you are gay, aren’t you…?” as though that justified it.
Often incorporating sexual harassment, bullying was rarely one-dimensional. Is this as bad as what women go through? Nope. Still, my observation was that while female students were neither the primary sources of homophobic bullying, nor derived any direct benefit from the maintenance of that status quo, they enforced it then as women play a significant role in enforcing it now.
I will say upfront there will be some mansplaining so you may want to turn back now.
The expression men are trash has a distinctly heterosexual dog-whistle pitch. What made men “trash” or “dogs” in the distant past wasn’t rape or violence. It was infidelity / inattentiveness / inconsiderateness / inability or refusal to provide within the contexts of the relationships they had with women.
Not being raped by her intimate partner wasn’t one of women’s ironclad expectation. Women’s rights were not universal; they were dependent on the men (brothers, fathers, husband) in their lives.
So a woman’s lot was to be infantilised in exchange for accepting romanticised portraits of patriarchy; it was also to accept gender-based violence as the man’s exercise of his rights, or displays of his jealousy. Mind you, if we rewind further back and visit the places we sourced Abrahamic religious scriptures, we see men could technically neither cheat nor rape except other men’s wives and daughters.
What men could do wrong entered public discourse rather incrementally and contextually. So the expression “men are trash” has not meant the same thing throughout time; it has had slippery meanings that have stuck to it through time, meaning whatever women wanted the words to mean, given whatever they could speak out about at that time. It is only recently that femicide became something polite society speaks about.
We could have had something that more acutely reflected today’s concerns, like, oh I don’t know: #AllMenAreRapists. #YesAllMen. #AllMenAreMurderers. But unlike rapist and murderer, the word trash embraces all the resonances the word has carried through the ages.
So women are rightly telling us we’re trash for not doing more to stop gender-based violence, but somewhere in that crowd is a jilted lover, a woman scorned, who is also calling all men trash for all the other ways we have betrayed the promises heterosexism and hetero-patriarchy made to women and to her. All men’s crimes, responsibilities and failures from throughout history are lumped together into one slam of the gavel. The problem with a consolidated criminal charge is femicide presupposes one context, one worldview and one set of promises; rape, and all men’s other crimes and failings, presuppose others. The word trash potentially hijacks anger from one context and uses it to relieve frustrations from another without explaining either very deeply (go 140 characters!); it therefore potentially Trojan-Horses very non-feminist, male-dependent energies into the public psyche while dishing them up as feminism and independence.
Don’t believe me? Let’s agree on heterosexism as the assumption straight is default and normal. Heterosexism’s implicit promise to women is that if they give little bits of themselves to patriarchy, they’ll get all patriarchy’s benefits without its pains. Its implicit promise to men is that since their identity is (falsely) tied up into dominance, women will be where they demonstrate said dominance and preserve said identities through the subjugation of women. While not every couple within the heterosexist framework realises every pleasure and every pain made possible by the heterosexist framework, heterosexism has funny ways of intersecting with other structural lies to produce hell on earth. Bear in mind, again, when they say, “men are trash”, many women are venting at the inevitable frustration at men that comes with buying into this lie, and they are venting at rape and domestic violence at the same time.
My point is we can’t complain about breakdowns in heterosexism as it once was (wishing to rescue and enjoy it) while complaining about rape culture as we now face it. The heterosexism that powers rape culture cannot be the paradigm from which we fight rape culture because it places more of a premium on sexual conquest than it does on consent.
The demand that there always be a male and a female in relationships is the demand that there always be a conqueror and a conquered as a reflection of broader social norms and structures replicated in our workplaces, governments, academia and other spaces in which men live out their trashiness. “That’s not true! We believe in equality!” many heterosexists will say. But if they did, they’d validate LGBTI persons, experiences and relationships as representative of authentic human experience as much as they do CIS-heterosexual lives and stories. If they don’t, then consent isn’t the backbone of a “normal” relationship, in their world: conquest is.
There is no middle ground between these two extremes. If we pretend there is, let us not act all shocked when the statistics for violence against women, especially black lesbians in townships who defy heterosexism’s demands, indicate we cannot centre heterosexuality without spiralling gender-based violence out of control, without finding horrendous intersections between heterosexism and other structural oppressions (classism, racism, etc.).
If we centre consent to displace conquest (or power, or dominance) and, consequently, heterosexism, in our experience of sexuality, we would have gone a long way towards erasing eradicating rape culture. #MenAreTrash the heterosexual culture that produces rape culture and domestic abuse, and passes its frustrations off a battle against rape culture and domestic abuse. It’s time to pick between heterosexism and women’s lives. You cannot rescue women’s bodies and heterosexism at the same time, yet few, if any, who tweet #MenAreTrash feel any need to interrogate the relationship amongst these violences and norms, despite the relationship being resonant in the historical and contextual stickiness of that word, trash.
#MenAreTrash was borrowed indiscriminately from experiences found largely in respectably heterosexist Hotepist stories in which men overstepped the boundaries of soft-core patriarchy. This went unquestioned because deep down inside, those who used the hashtag also desired patriarchy’s benefits without its baggage — so much so, they neither saw through it nor really heard where it was coming from.
Many jumping on this bandwagon aren’t fundamentally against patriarchy; they’re against patriarchy’s excesses and those excesses’ incompatibility with, and betrayal of, fantasies of “happily-ever-after” they could have gotten out of patriarchy and heterosexism. They are performing patriarchy even as they claim to fight it. If they spoke against homophobia and heterosexism as consistently as they do about everything men do wrong in more domestic and more familiarly heterosexist environments — from cheating to inflicting violence — then my feminist chord would be resonating with the men are trash note. It isn’t.
At the end of the day, many of the women tweeting “men are trash” are still going to turn around, selectively benefit from the very patriarchy they sometimes take a stand against, and still remain oblivious to the struggles of the LGBTI community being killed, raped and murdered on their doorsteps. Their primary allegiance is to the “normality” of heterosexuality and rescuing that from its own violence so they can return to it without critiquing it or their place in it more deeply than that. They are feminist to the extent that they can get soft-core patriarchy to deliver on its promises and hold back on its excesses and its violence — but not its violence against queer bodies. Why are homophobes not trash when hate crimes against LGBTI persons are reported?
I’ve paid my dues to the straight community. Everyone — yes, everyone — from that world has already trashed me. I get bonus points for double-trashiness, having been gay in a straight world and a man in a world where all men are rightly regarded as suspects. The heterosexism that suffocated me then is no different from the heterosexism that suffocates you, but hey, why question the air you breathe? So it’s okay if I don’t get brownie feminist points for not tweeting #MenAreTrash. Look closely. Those brownies aren’t brownies; they’re something really nasty that looks like brownies; that feminism is negotiated patriarchy dressed up to look like women’s empowerment. It calls patriarchy’s bluff, but has no plans to fundamentally destroy it.
A similar argument gets made about white people, apartheid and ongoing structural racism. It goes: the white people who passively benefitted from apartheid should be lumped together with those who actively drove apartheid. If white people were serious about non-racism, they would take responsibility for the whole mess.
My issue here isn’t heterosexuality (just as the issue isn’t “whiteness” but Whiteness): it’s heterosexism and its beneficiaries refusal to take responsibility for perpetuating the gender inequality that’s inherent to their way of being when that way of being is centred as THE way of being
So as long as the voices of heterosexists who are simply trying to tame patriarchy instead of dismantling it are mistaken for feminist voices just because they can imitate them, you will worsen the problem even as you go about fighting it, and, I’m sorry to say it, women will be complicit.
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